Olympic village comes to life - and 500,000 prepare to flee town

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The thin blue line appeared outside my house overnight, streaking across the bitumen like a demented snake and vanishing around the corner. On the last day of the Olympics this flash of blue will guide marathon runners on their zigzag course through the suburbs of Sydney to the stadium at Homebush.

With 11 days to go until the start of the Games, Sydney is finally being transformed into an Olympic city. Banners of different hues flutter in the early spring breeze; street signs warning drivers of the dire consequences of illegal parking have sprouted. Specially designated transit lanes have been painted an iridescent red.

In the city centre, the smell of turpentine and detergent hangs in the air as Sydney is buffed and polished to perfection. Eight truckloads of flowerpots are awaiting deployment. The last of the five Olympic rings has been bolted into place on the Harbour Bridge.

The Olympic village has suddenly come to life, with the first 3,500 athletes taking up residence last weekend. Cries of "Who's picking up Liberia?" could be heard as teams from 84 countries swarmed through the arrivals lounge of Sydney's shiny new international airport.

Sydneysiders learnt on a hot night in 1993 that they had narrowly defeated Peking for the right to host the 2000 Olympiad. Since then their mood has swung from euphoria to patient expectancy, to disillusionment - as scandals at home and abroad hammered the image of the Games - and now, tentatively, back to excitement.

"I can't quite believe it's happening," says an Australian friend. "I've followed every cough and gasp of it for the past seven years. Pinch me, am I dreaming?" Taxi drivers are in clover; they are hiking their fares by 10 per cent during the Games. So are restaurants, who plan to fine diners £35 for failing to keep bookings.

Not everyone is thrilled about the arrival of the Olympic circus. Half a million residents are preparing to flee town. Sydney's homeless complain they are being spring-cleaned off the streets - not in buses, which was Atlanta's notorious solution but in more subtle ways, thanks to bars newly installed across doorways and park benches.

Also unwelcome has been a security clampdown in a city beloved for its anything-goes insouciance. As of last Friday, access to Olympic Park, where the main venues are sited is restricted to people with tickets or passes. All visitors have to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. The area is patrolled by hundreds of police and army personnel; Black Hawk helicopters hover overhead.

All sorts of items are banned inside Olympic Park, including banners, frisbees, horns, bicycles, skateboards and T-shirts with rude messages. Aerial signwriting has been prohibited; one practitioner took to the skies last week to register his protest, spelling out the words "Why not?" It is still not clear, meanwhile, whether bellhops or pickets will greet the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, when he arrives in Sydney with his entourage today. Workers at his billet, the Regent Hotel, and other five-star establishments are in dispute with their managements over Olympic bonuses.

Apart from the threat of hotel strikes, Sydney is going to great lengths to keep its foreign visitors happy - and alive. Largesigns above main thoroughfares warn: "Drive carefully: overseas pedestrians about." Surf lifesavers will be out in force at the popular beaches.

Despite the gathering momentum, the sense of expectation is distinctly muted. One Canadian journalist who recently arrived in town said that it felt like turning up at a party to find the host still in the bath. The explanation seems to be the famously laid-back Sydney temperament. "We don't like people telling us to get excited," explains one local. "We'll get excited when we feel like it, OK?"